The Michigan Leg­is­lature is reviewing three “Buggy Bills” to improve safety for both the people driving the buggies and those sharing the roads with them. | Needpix

With the increase in acci­dents involving buggies and auto­mo­biles, the Michigan State Leg­is­lature is reviewing a three-piece package of leg­is­lation known as the “Buggy Bills” to improve road safety.  

In the past 11 months, Michigan has seen six acci­dents involving buggies and auto­mo­biles, including one southwest of Hillsdale that injured a family of four. A month earlier in Mecosta County, six children were injured when a vehicle struck their buggy, and in June, another accident claimed the lives of three children. 

The goal of the bills is twofold: first, increase safety for both the people driving the buggies and those sharing the roads with them and, second, reduce the damage caused to the roads by the buggies’ steel wheels.

State Sen. Mike Shirkey (R‑Clarklake) is spon­soring one of the bills. He said the leg­is­lation was born out of the “increasing chal­lenges with the Amish lifestyle cre­ating sit­u­a­tions that endan­gered safety” for both parties. 

Before drafting any leg­is­lation, however, Shirkey spent the summer of 2017 meeting with a dozen Amish bishops in Michigan, making the case that safety reg­u­la­tions were needed and seeking to find a com­promise. 

“The Amish are so kind and so genuine and seemed so engaged,” Shirkey said. 

Shirkey said they met over the summer, and he asked if they could put together a vol­untary pro­posal. They told him they would have that ready in Sep­tember.

But by the time Sep­tember came along, Shirkey said it was “abun­dantly clear” that nothing was going to be accom­plished.

“We met and I asked, ‘Do you have a pro­posal? Any ideas? Any sketches for what you would be alright with?’” Shirkey said. “They were silent. I looked them all in the eye and said I’d sat­isfied my com­mitment to try to do this without gov­ernment inter­vention, so we’re going to proceed.”

The result was a trio of bills modeled after laws in Indiana and Penn­syl­vania, which also have large Amish pop­u­la­tions. 

Senate Bill 642 would allow counties to require buggy owners to reg­ister their buggies before oper­ating them on public roadways and ensure that a horse-and-buggy driver manual be available to the public. 

SB 643 would require horse-drawn vehicles to be equipped with at least two illu­mi­nated devices on the front and rear of the buggy visible from at least 500 feet away. 

SB 644 would require all vehicles, including horse-drawn vehicles, to be equipped with tires made of rubber or similar mate­rials while using a public highway. This bill also would ban carbide on the bottom of horse­shoes, which is noto­rious for tearing up roads.

State Rep. Eric Leutheuser (R‑Hillsdale) is cham­pi­oning this leg­is­lation in the House.

“I was born and raised here, and there’s never been a time when there wasn’t an accident,” Leutheuser said. “The thinking was always that it would be too hard to get some­thing passed. But people are inter­ested in this all over the state, so it wasn’t just unique to our area. We found more interest in it than we thought as we had con­ver­sa­tions about it over the years.”

James Hohman, director of fiscal policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, said the leg­is­lation seeks to offer a prac­tical solution to a real chal­lenge.  

“Roads are engi­neered to be used for their primary motor vehicle users, but the roads are available to people using other vehicles,” Hohman said. “The problem is that the dif­fer­ences in speeds and safety fea­tures make it dan­gerous for dif­ferent kinds of vehicles to use the roads at the same time. The bills look like an attempt to address that problem and to also prevent use from other vehicles from causing damage to the roads.”

Both Leutheuser and Shirkey said their only moti­va­tions in the leg­is­lation is public safety.

“I think the only thing that would be con­tro­versial would be that people might fear that we’re picking on the Amish in a sort of heavy-handed or unfeeling way,” Leuthueser said. “But this is an unrea­sonable claim. No one is claiming that these com­mu­nities are somehow less than neighbors or that they’re second class cit­izens because they’ve got horses or don’t have lights.”

Shirkey con­curred.

“There have been pre­vious attempts to do this, and people have framed it as a being punitive to the Amish,” he said. “This is just the opposite. I’m sin­cerely looking out for the interests of the Amish and public safety.”